Photographer Laurence Philomene’s bright, pastel photographic self-portraiture challenges notions of gender and trans-representation in popular media.
I first encountered Laurence Philomene’s work around 2012, at the height of Tumblr. Looking back, it was one of the first visuals that felt like a reflection of the life, body, or gender I could someday have. I remember being inspired to make photos of myself and my friends, converting closets into makeshift studios with found fabric and wearing outfits and makeup we were not yet ready to reveal to the public eye.
Since then, Philomene has not slowed down — and has gone on to create an incredible archive of images that continue to challenge our notions of gender with joyful, confident, and pastel photos of their community and visions of the world.
Laurence Philomene’s most recent series ‘Puberty’ is an ongoing documentation of their transition on Hormone replacement therapy.. Made in Philomene’s signature style and color, these photos not only serve as a beautiful and vibrant document — but ask that we, as trans & queer & non-binary people — be seen as whole and complicated creatures. They are rooted in the vernacular and mundane and allow for a trans narrative and representation outside of the spotlight and the heightened spectacle of visibility that comes with it.
Philomene’s photos are messy, honest, comforting, and vulnerable: an important visualization of daily life to trans folks who have yet to envision or see it reflected back to them. Dishes. Texting. Lounging. Breakfast. Watching TV in bed, awash in a purple haze. The moments before and after a testosterone shot. Crying, with the camera pointed squarely at our face.
June T. Sanders in conversation with Laurence Philomene
June T. Sanders: Can you tell me a little about how this project started and/or what it means to you?
Laurence Philomene: "Puberty" is an ongoing self-portrait project documenting physical changes and mundane moments during my transition on HRT (hormonal replacement therapy) as a non-binary transgender person.
I’ve been toying with the idea of documenting my transition for a while. I started taking testosterone in April 2018. Witnessing these changes within myself is an interesting challenge as a self-portrait photographer. They are subtle changes. You think it’s going to happen overnight but it doesn’t. This is what I’m learning: everything takes longer than I think it’s going to take. I wanted to make hyper-staged studio images. They were going to be still lives of body parts.
Sanders: How did the project evolve over time?
Philomene: I was going to call the project “puberty”. I was going to explore my new masculine puberty but drown it in bubble gum pink, going back to early themes of femininity I explored when I was 18. The more I planned the project the less I wanted to do it. I think I pitched it a couple of times and never heard back. So this is going on in my mind, the puzzle of how do I document this fleeting moment in time.
Meanwhile, I’m burned out. I’m 25 and I’ve completely zapped every ounce of energy out of my body. For a long time, I tell myself I need to take a break but the internet does not take a break. It just keeps happening, over and over and over, every day new pictures, new content to produce, new opportunities to miss out on. Thinking about productivity culture and hating it so much, yet feeling I could not escape it. Then it became inevitable - I put myself on a forced sabbatical. I didn’t know how long this would last - three weeks went by. I listened to a lot of meditation podcasts. The boredom started to set in. I day-dreamed about long-term documentary projects. I thought about photography as sociology. The decision to document myself in that context seemed obvious.
With this in mind, since increasing my testosterone dosage in January 2019, I have been documenting the changes I am witnessing in both my body and my moods through a daily self-portrait practice. The resulting images are at times staged: studio portraits documenting changes in my body (facial hair, muscle tissue, etc) with a straightforward approach - and at times candid: setting up a tripod in my home as I go about my daily routines (eating breakfast, doing my dishes, waking up, playing dress-up at a friend’s house, doing my testosterone injection, scrolling social media on my phone). This process involves taking pictures with a remote repeatedly until I almost forget the camera is there.
Sanders: How do you think this process impacts the images and series as a whole?
Philomene: The images explore the body as a site in constant evolution, and as it exists in- between genders. With this project, I want to show [a] trans life outside of the spotlight: depicting day-to-day, human moments. Through these daily scenes, I also look at transition as a slow and at times lonely process in a society where trans lives are marginalized. The resulting images are cinematic, offering the viewer a glimpse into intimate scenes of my life, and creating a primary source document on a trans life in the 21st century. While these images are documenting trans experience, they also look at themes that are shared across all human existence, namely that of self-care, rituals and the slow process of becoming. It’s also a personal memento, giving myself a record of this transitional moment in my life.
Sanders: I'm interested in how these photos serve as both real-life, day-to-day documents and staged, beautiful compositions — which is a theme I see in a lot of your work and a reason I'm drawn to so much of it. How do these aspects of your work inform, compliment, or complicate each other?
Philomene: I’m always interested in blurring the lines between what is staged and what isn’t - playing with the fact that we assume what we see in photographs to be real. I think that’s my favorite aspect of photography as an art form vs other mediums (painting, sculpture, installation etc) which we tend to automatically assume are fabrications. My work always integrates autobiographical elements, whether it's the people I photograph or the locations I put them in, but the moment itself is usually staged (or rather, I create an environment in which that moment can happen organically, but it wouldn’t have happened without my intervention).
With Puberty, I wanted to steer away from that staged aesthetic as much as possible - but this poses the question: is it possible to create entirely un-staged self-representation? Perhaps the moment we become aware of the camera’s presence the possibility of it being an entirely “real” moment disappears? If I start thinking about this long enough it very quickly goes into an existential/philosophical wormhole like - what makes a moment more real than another? Are we constantly staging our lives through our own self-awareness anyway?
Sanders: Can you talk a bit about the documentation process as it relates to your daily routine?
Philomene: Perhaps the best way to describe the documentation of these moments is very short-term nostalgia. Typically, I’ll be going about my daily routines and find myself in a moment that feels significant, or aesthetically pleasing. Once I’ve made that realization, I’ll immediately grab my camera and recreate the moment that occurred just seconds ago. There’s a desire for authenticity but I can never quite achieve it. I think more important here is the question of vulnerability, which is another big theme in this project. I think that one I’ve finally figured out - showing my life as it is, no artifice.
Sanders: Your photos feel urgent - and poignant - in a time where there is so much trans representation out in the world right now, yet we still don't have a lot of autonomy or control over our own images.
Philomene: Like I said, it took almost a year into my transition to figure out exactly HOW I was going to document the transition - I feel like trans representation is everywhere yet it is also nowhere. I see people on magazine covers who seemingly changed overnight. I see people who underwent several surgeries. That’s a big reality. But there’s more to it to, you know? There’s more to it than just our bodies. I think the closest I’d seen when it comes to day-to-day trans existence was in Mariette Pathy Allen’s work (https://www.mariettepathyallen.com/the-gender-frontier#1) but then again that was a cis person observing (although lovingly) trans lives as an outsider.
With that in mind, there are multiple facets to the kind of representation I’m interested in with this project -
1: it is self-representation like you said, it’s having autonomy and control over my own image.
2: it is not glamorized. It’s daily human moments. This to me is very intentional. In a world where our existence is constantly de-humanized, I wanted to bring it back to daily moments of self-care that we all (trans, cis & gender-non-conforming folks alike) partake in. Like waking up in the morning, cuddling with my cat, brushing my teeth. Yes, the accumulation of these moments showcase the physical and emotional changes that occur with HRT, but they also showcase above all a human life in the 21st century in North America. Something we can all relate to, and connect with outside of gender.
3 : It is educational. I’m doing this because growing up I had no sort of frame of reference in regards to what a day-to-day trans existence might look like. I had no idea what doing your hormone injections at home might look like. I want to demystify that process with these images. A lot of trans people are automatically put in activist positions, always having to educate others about our existence & advocate for ourselves whether we want to or not. I’m hoping by sharing these images I can take the load off of other trans folks who don’t have the energy to constantly explain themselves.
Sanders: You have such a strong and distinct color palette! How do you go about making color choices and how do you think they inform or play off the content?
Philomene: Typically, my use of color is VERY intentional - it is used to dictate the mood and tone of each image I make. I pick my colors very intuitively, though I have an affinity for bright colors and monochromatic scenes. With Puberty, I kind of took my hands off the wheel a bit, which was extremely challenging to me at first - because I’m photographing these images in my home as it is on any given day, I can’t change the colors to suit my mood. I don’t put the clutter away either. It’s been an interesting exercise in surrendering control over the images I create.
Regardless, as I love color in all aspects of life, my house is still very colorful and that plays a big role in the images created. An important aspect of my work is to show trans + queer existences through a happier lens than I tend to see us represented, and bright colors definitely help with that.
Sanders: Who or what do you find inspiration from? Are there any artists, collectives, projects, writers, etc that you’re particularly excited about right now?
Philomene: Lately I get most of my inspiration from taking long walks in my neighborhood. It’s a working-class, almost-suburban-but-not-quite kind of area and I’ve been going through all the back alleys. There’s this one alley that’s entirely covered in grass-like nature just went ahead and took over the city without asking permission. Aside from that, I’m always looking at other queer + trans visual artists who have used photography as a tool for self-exploration. My favorite forever is my dear friend Hobbes Ginsberg, who I think is an actual genius. I've been looking at Claude Cahun’s work a lot these days.
Sanders: What’s next for you?
Philomene: I’m going to call the pharmacy, there’s a shortage of testosterone in my entire province this month so I need them to talk to my doctor and see what can be done about that, and then I’m going to help a friend do their groceries.